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Eurogamer has recently paid a visit to Obsidian Entertainment and used that opportunity to talk about Alpha Protocol, Obsidian's spy RPG and a bit of a cult classic by now. The resulting article is filled with interesting tidbits about the game's troubled development. We get to read about Alpha Protocol's budgetary constraints, its infamous mini-games, and even certain questionable publisher decisions that were partially responsible for the game's buggy nature. The canceled Aliens RPG also gets a mention, as well as Obsidian's early plans for Alpha Protocol 2.
The hammer fell on Aliens: Crucible - but it was a wake up gong for Alpha Protocol. The project could go no further as it was. Chris Parker was brought in as lead producer/game director and Chris Avellone (another owner) as lead designer. Parker says, "We had a big 'coming to Jesus' meeting where we decided what are all the things we wanted to do and didn't want to do."
Before the big meeting, there weren't any spy safe houses. "You'd go to Moscow and go straight through Moscow," Matt MacLean says. "It almost felt like a series of first-person shooter levels. The extreme over-correction would have been 'let's make an open-world city!', but no, we don't have time to do that. But what we can do is let the player move between the hubs."
Before the big meeting, Alpha Protocol's infamous mini-games were even worse. "The original mini-games were several minutes of 'this is a whole new game in and of itself'," MacLean says. "The best thing to liken it to is the way BioShock tried to solve hacking by doing a little puzzle game within.
"We were trying to do a puzzle game but it didn't really feel like what you were doing and took too long to resolve. Are you just sitting here hacking for three minutes while guys are shooting at you? Or do we pause the world - in which case if we pause the world, where's the pressure?"
Chris Parker remembers it more bluntly: "We had these mini-games that were clearly not fun, nobody liked them. There were a lot of arguments about how to make them fun, but what we had to do was actually back up and go, 'No, they're not fun, let's throw them away and have them do this.'"
The team even toyed with scrapping mini-games altogether in favour of a time or resource component instead, but apparently Sega wanted them in. "So the mini-games that we shipped with are..." MacLean exhales, because he made them, "the redeeming feature is that they're faster."
Before the big meeting, there was parkour. "We did all these really specific parkour elements," Parker says. "I don't know how the player was supposed to know this - again, why this was cut - but there was a path where you can go around to shoot some guys, or, if you walk over to this crack in the wall and hit A, Mike would do this fancy spider-climb up through the middle of it, which did look super-cool. It was kind of neat but are we going to go through and make levels that are just filled with exceptions? The pay-off just really wasn't there."
Before the big meeting, there was environmental interaction. "You're running through this airplane graveyard and we've conveniently placed enemies underneath the props of these airplanes," Parker says, "and if you shot the middle of the props then the props would fall down and kill the enemies. It was like, 'Ohh this is great!'
"It wasn't great," he adds, "it was a lot of work and it didn't have a whole lot of pay-off. People found it just as much fun to get in a straight out firefight over figuring out where we game-designed-in some cool environmental interactions, so we scrapped that."
Before the big meeting, there were on-rails motorbike and yacht chase sequences - hence the motorbike in Alpha Protocol, and the yacht ("but there is no chase to get to the yacht - we spared you that part," MacLean says).
"We were always going to have chase sequences," Parker says, "that was how the parachute [in the scrapped demo sequence] came to be. When we refactored the game we just said, again, 'that seems like a whole lot of work for not a lot of pay-off' and outside of the core of what we wanted to do."
Before the meeting there was also another major female character called Uli Booi. So much work was done on her that her picture hangs alongside the other notable Alpha Protocol characters on the wall in front of me (pictured above).
By the time the big meeting was over, Obsidian had a solid vision for Alpha Protocol at last - a kind of Jason Bourne adventure with baddies as zany as in Kill Bill, Chris Avellone would later say. The game would take longer to make and cost more money than originally budgeted but Sega's confidence was restored, and so was the team's. "The direction we were going wasn't something everyone was completely happy with so changing that around ... it really revitalised a lot of the team," says Tyson Christensen, lead level designer on the game.
"We finished a complete pitch for Alpha Protocol 2," Chris Parker says. "It's a pretty detailed pitch about 35-40 pages long. A lot of it was to do with fundamentally revisiting some of the gameplay systems to get some of the jankiness out of them and shore them up overall. I know the intention was to focus on reactivity because we knew that was one of the things people loved the most.
"I remember there was this idea I didn't think we could ever pull off. It was this choice and consequence web people wanted to have in the interface so you could see your choices and how they spider-webbed through [everything]. There were so many ways to play through the first game I don't think we could ever do that in the second one, but that was an idea people really wanted to pursue."
But Obsidian cannot make Alpha Protocol 2 without Sega sanctioning it, because Sega owns the game, the intellectual property, and when I asked Sega it didn't sound like an AP sequel was part of any kind of plan. But Sega almost didn't own the IP. The real kicker in all of this - the absolute heart-wrencher - is Obsidian almost did. What scuppered it was Disney cancelling the Seven Dwarves Snow White spin-off Obsidian was making after Neverwinter Nights 2.
"When the Dwarves thing happened we were practically done with an agreement with Sega to do Alpha Protocol," Feargus Urquhart says, "but what this cost us - Dwarves getting cancelled and that contract - was the Alpha Protocol IP. Having to get that contract signed right away... Originally we were going to own the Alpha Protocol IP."
As it is, Alpha Protocol 2 can go nowhere but into the bulging drawer of Obsidian game ideas and pitches I've been lucky enough to rummage through for you, and I'll be telling you more about the treasures within this weekend.
Meanwhile Alpha Protocol remains not Obsidian's most famous game but, as the studio's own heartbreaking attempt at launching an original series, a special one. "It's a game that we go back to every now and then and say, 'Remember how we completely fucked this thing up in AP? Let's not do that again,' because we spent a year-and-a-half working on a game ultimately no one really liked and we had to refactor and took us forever to finish, and arguably we didn't finish it in some ways," Chris Parker says.
"It's also used as an example of how to do a ton of really solid reactivity in ways that are meaningful. Sometimes in our quest to make reactive worlds in role-playing games we do things that are not meaningful, and nobody really remembers or cares about those things. The way that AP handled that stuff, the things that changed on everybody's playthrough are meaningful - they're kind of in your face. They're things that people take away from a playthrough."